Comes the Peace: My Journey to Forgiveness is the memoir of Daja Wangchuk Meston (born 1970), a “white Tibetan.” Although he was the son of American parents, Meston was raised by a Tibetan noble family living in exile in Kathmandu, Nepal; by the age of six, he was sent to Kopan Monastery as a novice monk. Against the wishes of his mother (who was herself living in Nepal as an ordained Buddhist nun), Meston eventually left the monastic life and moved to his “native” America in order to get an education when he was a teenager in the 1980s. His story opens with his arrest and consequent suicide attempt in Amdo in 1999; he had been sent there by a human rights organization to find proof that Tibetans and Mongols were being displaced by the Chinese Government’s World Bank project. Although his arrest and hospitalization after jumping from the window in the room where he was being imprisoned brought him international recognition as an activist for Tibetan independence and human rights, political and religious themes are almost entirely absent in his autobiography. Instead, Meston’s memoir is a deeply personal tale of his own life between two worlds and his struggle to find a sense of belonging and to ultimately understand and forgive his mother
The details of Daja Wangchuk Meston’s life are anything but ordinary. Born to American parents in Switzerland, himself an American citizen by birth, Daja Greeneye was placed in the care of a Tibetan family in Kathmandu, Nepal when he was just a toddler. And yet, although his experiences as a white child being raised as a “Tibetan” are unique, his memoir ultimately deals with a very common theme: the struggle to fit in and to feel love and acceptance. As a young boy in Nepal, he recalls being treated differently than the other children in the family, especially when visitors came to the house. “‘Who is this little boy?’ they would ask. I couldn’t figure out why they would ask such a question. I was a part of the Trinley family. The older mother jokingly said I was her own child. Everyone laughed. What was so funny? I wondered” (55). By the age of six, Wangchuk (as he was then known in Tibetan) was ordained as a monk and sent to live in a monastery. Although the stares of visitors to the Trinley household and of passerby in the streets had made the young boy aware of the fact that he looked different from other children, he had felt accepted by his Tibetan “family” and especially by “Mummy,” a nun who came from a nearby monastery to visit the Trinley family sporadically. Though her Tibetan was limited and he could not understand any of the English that Mummy spoke, he felt drawn to her because she was the only other person he saw who had light skin and similar features; she also brought him gifts and treated him as somebody special rather than making him feel like something odd. Although he did not understand that this white nun was actually his own mother, he recalls hoping that she had come to take him with her whenever she came to visit, and his bitter disappointment when she would sneak away and leave him behind. Reflecting upon his confusion at the situation, he writes, “The only answer I could come up with was that something was wrong with me. Maybe she knew I wet my pants. Every time she left, I promised myself I would do better, and be better. Then she would want me. She never did. I was never worthy enough to go home with her (58-9).”
While he had sometimes felt like an oddity among the Trinley children, and felt unwanted by the one person who seemed to be like himself; he writes of life before his ordination as relatively carefree. In contrast, he describes his life at Kopan monastery as almost entirely miserable. As a young monk, he writes, he became obsessed with food and sleep—the two things that he never seemed to have enough of at the monastery. He remembers receiving beatings at the hands of his lamas and teachers when he forgot his lessons or did anything wrong. Although he paints the picture that monastic life was, in general, not very pleasant, Meston is not overly critical of the Buddhist religious system. As this is the only social order and worldview that he knew of until he was much older, he obviously writes from an insider’s point of view. And yet, because of the way the other monks treated him, he was constantly aware of the fact that he was viewed as an outsider. The other monks created various names for him, including the Tibetan Mik Karbo (“White Eye”) and the Nepali Qure (“Rotten”) (67). At just six years old, he was too young to understand why he looked different from the other monks. In addition to his appearance, the other monks also mocked his manner of speaking. It was only later that he discovered that he spoke a dialect used only by aristocratic Tibetans, the result of being raised in the Trinley home. Through the other monks’ teasing, Meston eventually learned that the white nun who lived in another section of the monastery reserved for Westerners, the woman who had come to visit him often in the Trinley household, was actually his mother.
They also teased him for being the son of a “crazy” man. Although he did not understand at the time, he later pieced together his own family history. His parents, Larry and Feather Greeneye, had been “quintessential hippies” who spent much of the 1960s living in communes and traveling throughout Europe in a Volkswagen bus (12). His mother had been born into a wealthy family in Beverly Hills; her father, John Meston—whose last name the author eventually adopted as a way to feel more connected with American culture—was the creator of the popular television series Gunsmoke and her mother was a model. Although he describes his grandparents as “a handsome, well-known Hollywood couple” (23), Meston writes that they divorced when Feather was very young and that she confided in him that she never felt loved by or connected to either her mother—an alcoholic who suffered from severe depression—or her father—who remarried twice and immersed himself in his work as a television writer. She fell in love with and married Larry Greenburg (they later changed their name to Greeneye), a struggling art dealer who came from a poor family. Because of Feather’s financial situation, the two were able to live quite comfortably. Meston writes that his mother decided where they should travel, and his father willingly followed. While he was just a toddler, she had became convinced that the family should journey to India in order seek out a spiritual experience. They drove through various parts of the Middle East and Pakistan before spending a year in Dharamsala. They then traveled to Nepal for a month-long Tibetan Buddhist retreat at Kopan Monastery—the same monastery that he was sent to a few years later. Although he was too young at the time to remember much, as an adult, he reflects upon that month as a period that altered the entire dynamic of their family and shaped the rest of his young life. It was during this retreat that his mother had decided to become a Buddhist nun; his father, on the other hand, suffered some sort of mental breakdown and ran off to the mountains where he wandered barefoot for weeks before returning to the monastery with sores on his feet and burns on his face, claiming to have followed a voice that said, “You are my slave. I am your Buddha” (44). The author was only three years old at the time that his mother shaved her head and donned the robes of a nun and his father was sent back to America where he would spend the rest of his life in a mental institution.
Meston’s memoir is not chronological; he intersperses his parents’ and grandparents’ stories within his own autobiography, as he struggles to make sense of his own identity. His story begins with a leap out of a third-story window in Amdo in 1999. Having been sent on mission by a human rights organization to find proof that Tibetans and Mongols were being displaced by the Chinese Government’s World Bank project, Meston was arrested and detained by Chinese officials. Although he writes that he felt that he had failed the mission and was attempting suicide, he woke up in a Chinese hospital and was eventually airlifted back to the United States; he received international recognition as a “hero” for the Tibetan nationalist movement. He recalls his own childhood with the Trinleys, his upbringing as a monk, and his encounters with his mother and his feeling of abandonment by her. At the age of ten, he went to America for the very first time. He wore jeans, went to Disney Land, and met his great grandmother and other relatives that he had never even known existed. For Meston, however, the highlight of the trip was the fact that—externally at least—he was just like everybody else; for the first time in his life, he felt normal. When he returned to the monastery in Nepal, he was even more miserable than he had been before and began acting out. By the age of sixteen, Meston was sent to Sera Monastery in India where his lamas hoped that he would become more disciplined. After only a few days there, he ran away with the help of two other monks and returned to Kopan Monastery in lay clothes, (falsely) claiming to have slept with a prostitute in order to be disrobed. He writes that he felt remorse for disappointing his teachers and his mother, yet he wanted nothing more than to return to America where he could simply blend in with everybody else.
While he had always felt like an outsider as the only white boy among the Trinley children and the other monks; he soon realized that, even though he looked like a typical American teenager, his upbringing as a Tibetan-speaking monk made it impossible to not feel like an outsider in America as well. As a young teenager in Nepal, he had dreamed of moving to America and getting a Western education. Although he had a number of family friends and distant relatives willing to help him out, he quickly realized that he had neither the English skills nor previous education necessary to be successful in high school. He writes that he will always feel “foreign,” saying,
When I lived in Nepal, I was an immigrant because I was white. In America, I was an immigrant because my language, demeanor, and worldview were Tibetan. Throw in the Buddhist monk perspective and mind-set, and I was even more an immigrant (126).
Eventually, the author met and married a Tibetan woman who was living and working in the United States. His wife, Phuni, encouraged him to continue his education and he completed a GED and was accepted to Brandeis University in Boston. Phuni had been born in a refugee camp in India, where most of her family still lived; it was through her that he became involved in human rights work and traveled to Tibet a few times for different organizations. He also credits Phuni with helping him to become reconciled with his own family—he eventually forgave his mother and established a relationship with his father, who still lives in a mental institution.
Although Daja Wangchuk Meston could have focused his autobiography on his religious upbringing and life as a Buddhist monk, he didn’t. Similarly, he could have focused on the political and social causes that he and his wife have worked for; yet he didn’t do that either. Instead, his memoir is about struggling to find an identity and to come to terms with his own desire to be accepted, particularly by his mother. Although it is highly unlikely that anybody who reads his story will be able to relate to the particular details of his childhood in Nepal or his teenage years as an ex-monk in America, the core of his story is one that will resonate with most people—the emphasis on seeking to understand his own identity as an individual. Meston’s Comes the Peace: My Journey to Forgiveness is a very personal account of how by seeking to understand his parents’ identities that he was finally able to forgive them and come to terms with his own identity.